5 Story Mistakes Even Good Writers Make

In fiction, story matters more than anything else.

Yet too often authors forget this and, in their zeal to impress readers or wow editors, pepper their writing with distracting devices that only end up undermining the story itself.

Never let anything get between your story and your readers. Here are five of the most common ways even the best writers veer off-course—and simple strategies for avoiding them.

1. Overdoing Symbolism/Themes

A few years ago I picked up a literary novel that everyone was talking about. In the first chapter there was a storm; in the second, someone was washing his hands; then a character was crying; then there was a baptism. I remember thinking, OK, I get it. Your image is water and your theme is cleansing—now get on with the story.

Problem was, from that point on, guess what I was doing?

Yup … looking for the next way the writer was going to weave a water image into her story. And she delivered, scene after predictable scene.

As a reader I was no longer emotionally present in the story. I’d become a critic, an observer. And that’s definitely not what a storyteller wants her readers to do.

The more your readers are on the lookout for your images, your themes, your symbolism, and so on, the less they’ll be impacted by the real essence of your story.

Does that mean that themes and images don’t have a place in your work? Not at all. But it does mean that rather than building your story around that theme (love, forgiveness, freedom, etc.), or advice (“Follow your dreams,” “Be true to your heart,” etc.), or a cliché (“Every cloud has a silver lining,” “Time heals all wounds,” etc.), it’s better to drive your narrative forward through tension and moral dilemmas.

So, instead of using the theme “justice,” let the events of the story pose a more engaging question: “What’s more important, telling the truth or protecting the innocent?”

Rather than giving the advice, “You should forgive others,” let your story explore a dilemma: “How do you forgive someone who has done the unthinkable to someone you love?”

Let your story do more than reiterate the cliché, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Instead, challenge that axiom by presenting your characters with situations that raise the question, “When do the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many?”

Respect your readers. Assume that they’re as smart as you are. If you can easily identify your own imagery, symbolism, themes and so on, expect that they will, too. And as soon as they do, they’ll be distracted from the story itself.

2. Trying Too Hard

There’s nothing less impressive than someone trying to be impressive. There’s nothing less funny than someone trying to be funny. Eloquence doesn’t impress anyone except for the person trying so hard to be eloquent.

So look for places in your story where you were trying to be funny, clever or impressive, and change those sections or remove them.

Some writers shoot for humor by writing things like, “she joked,” “he quipped,” “he mentioned in his usual fun-loving way,” and so on. Don’t fall into this trap. If your dialogue is really funny, you don’t need to point that out to your readers. (And if it’s not as funny as you’d intended, you don’t need to draw attention to the fact.)

Some authors resort to using a profusion of speaker attributions. Their characters chortle, grunt, exclaim, reiterate, gasp, howl, hiss and bark. Whenever I read a book like this I find myself skimming through the dialogue just to see what the next synonym for said will be. Readers get it. They know you own a thesaurus. Just tell the story.

In the same way, drop antiquated or obscure words unless they’re necessary for character development or maintaining voice. This isn’t to say that you can’t write intelligent, incisive, challenging prose, but any time the meaning of an unfamiliar word isn’t immediately obvious within the context of the story, choose another word that won’t trip readers up. This is especially true as you build toward the climax, since the pace of the story needs to steadily increase.

Similarly, avoid the temptation to impress your readers with your research, your plot structure or your knowledge of the flora and fauna of western North Carolina. When readers pick up your book, they’re not preparing for a spelling bee or a doctoral dissertation or a medical exam; they’re hoping for an entertaining, believable story that will transport them to another world and move them on a deep, emotional level.

Textbook literary devices fall under this same umbrella—they’re too contrived. Writing something like, “She cautiously closed the closet door and crept across the carpet,” might have impressed your English professors, but it does nothing to serve readers in today’s marketable fiction. As soon as readers notice the alliteration, they’ll be distracted—and whether they’re counting up the number of times you used the letter C, or rolling their eyes at your attempt to be clever, they’ve momentarily disengaged from your story. And that’s the last thing you want them to do.

Believe it or not, you don’t want readers to admire your writing: You want them to be so engaged in the story itself that they don’t notice the way you use words to shape it. Anything that jars readers loose from the grip of the story needs to go, even if it seems “literary.” Weed out figures of speech that don’t serve the mood of the scene. For example, if you’re curled up with a book and are deep in the midst of a chapter depicting an airplane hijacking, you wouldn’t want to read, “The clouds outside the window were castles in the sky.” Not only does the superfluous description undermine the suspense, but castles carry a positive connotation that further disrupts the tension. If you can’t resist the urge to use a figure of speech when writing a scene like this, choose one that accentuates the mood: “The jet plummeted through the dungeon of clouds.”

Over the years I’ve heard of authors who’ve written books without punctuation, or without the word said, or without quotation marks, or by using an exact predetermined number of words. To each his own. But when these artificial constraints become more important to the author than the reader’s experience with the story is, they handcuff it.

Whenever you break the rules or keep them, it must be for the benefit of your readers. If your writing style or techniques get in the way of the story by causing readers to question what’s happening, analyze the writing, or page back to earlier sections in order to understand the context, you’ve failed.

You want your writing to be an invisible curtain between your readers and your story. Anytime you draw attention to the narrative tools at your disposal, you insert yourself into the story and cause readers to notice the curtain. Although it may seem counterintuitive, most authors looking to improve their craft need to cut back on the devices they use (whether that’s assonance, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, similes or whatever), rather than add more.

3. Failing to Anticipate the Readers’ Response

A plot flaw is, simply put, a glitch in believability or causality. When a character acts in a way that doesn’t make sense, or when one scene doesn’t naturally follow from the one that precedes it, readers will stumble.

Imagine your protagonist hears that a killer is in the neighborhood and then, in the next scene, decides to spend a cozy evening in the kitchen making homemade pasta. Readers will think, What? Why doesn’t she lock all the doors and windows, or call the police, or run to her car and get out of the area? Thus, at the very moment where you want them to be drawn deeper into the narrative, your readers pull away and start to question your character’s actions—and, to some degree, your storytelling ability.

As soon as an event isn’t believable, it becomes a distraction. So ask yourself at every plot point: “Is there enough stimulus to motivate this action?” And then make sure there is. Always anticipate your readers’ response.

Try to step back and read your work-in-progress as objectively as you can, through the eyes of a reader who has never seen it before. If you come to a place where you think, Why doesn’t she just … ? or, Wait, that doesn’t make sense … that’s where you have some revising to do. And the solution doesn’t have to be complicated. Often you can solve a plot flaw in your story simply by having your characters point it out. If your protagonist says something like, “I couldn’t believe she would do such a thing—it just didn’t compute,” readers will think, Yes, exactly—I thought the same thing! There’s more going on here than meets the eye. The more you admit that the scene has a believability problem, the less readers will hold you responsible for it.

With this in mind, you should also make sure every special skill or gadget needed in the climax is foreshadowed earlier in the story. Coincidences drive a wedge in believability. Foreshadowing removes them. So if the diver suddenly needs a harpoon to fight off the killer barracuda and he reaches down and—how convenient!—just happens to find one, readers won’t buy it. Show us the harpoon earlier so it makes sense when it reappears at the climactic battle.

4. Using a Hook as a Gimmick

Many well-meaning writing instructors will tell you that you need to start your story with a good “hook” to snag your readers’ attention. And they’re right—to a certain degree.

While I was teaching at one writing conference a woman gave me her story for a critique. It started with an exciting car chase. I said, “Great, so this is an action story.”

“No,” she told me. “It’s a romance. The woman goes to the hospital and falls in love with the doctor.”

“But it starts with a car chase and explosion. Readers will expect it to escalate from there.”

“I had a different opening,” she admitted, “but my critique group told me I needed a good hook.”

It may have been true that her story needed a better hook, but she landed on the wrong one. Hooks become gimmicks if they don’t provide the platform for escalation.

Too many times a writer will grab readers’ attention early on with a scene that’s clearly been contrived just for that purpose, without introducing the characters or the setting of the story. Consequently the writer is forced to insert excessive backstory into the next scene—thus undermining the forward momentum of the plot. Take your time, trust your readers and craft a hook that orients them to the world you’ve created. Then drive the story forward without having to explain why you started it the way you did.

5. Leaving Readers Hanging

Never annoy your readers.

Sometimes I read books in which the author withholds key information from readers, presumably in an effort to create suspense. But failing to give readers what they want doesn’t create suspense, it causes dissatisfaction.

For example, don’t leave a point-of-view character in the middle of an action sequence. If, in the final sentence of a chase scene, you write that your protagonist “careened around the bend and crashed into the cement pylon jutting up from the side of the road,” readers will turn to the next chapter wanting to find out if she is
conscious, dead, etc.

But if that next chapter instead begins with another point-of-view character, one in a less stressful situation, readers will be impatient. They don’t want to wait to come back to the woman in the car (or maybe she’s in the hospital by then) a chapter later.

If readers are tempted to skip over part of your story to get to a part they want to read, you need to fix that section. As you write, constantly ask yourself what the readers want at this moment of the story.

Then, give it to them—or surprise them with something even better.

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22 thoughts on “5 Story Mistakes Even Good Writers Make

  1. Elanesse100

    “If readers are tempted to skip over part of your story to get to a part they want to read, you need to fix that section.”

    I HATE when authors do the whole back and forth viewpoints thing. The more there are, the more likely I am to separate the characters into most to least favorite, and many times I am not only tempted, but in fact usually do skip over the chapter with that least favorite character to get to “the good stuff.”

    I don’t care how the sister to the side-kicks side-kick gets to the final scene, I understand that she’ll have a purpose, but I don’t care how she physically gets to that point of usefulness.

  2. KristinaB

    ‘Believe it or not, you don’t want readers to admire your writing…’ – I always pay attention to that and I miss that in the books of nowadays writers. English is a beautiful language, but in the books I have read, none of that beauty appeared. It’s all, as I say, DRY – just dry. I like interesting phrases, expressions, adverbs, adjectives and verbs I’ve never seen before. So sentences like this one: ‘She cautiously closed the closet door and crept across the carpet’, not only will impress the English professor, but me too. It makes the scene so much more powerful and allows us to understand of how ‘She’ feels at that time. If author wrote: ‘She closed the door and walked across the carpet’ – it would be just dry and no emotion. Now, she ‘cautiously closed the door’ and ‘crept’ – gives a different vibe. And I believe, there are more people like me, who wants more from the book, than just a good story. It makes writing so much better when you don’t see just a word ‘said’ in the dialogue all the time. Missing ‘said’ is just as bad. It often confuse me which character said what.
    Writers should neither underestimate nor spoil the readers. Just because someone is too lazy to use a dictionary is not a reason to leave adverbs behind or use ‘said’ instead of more interesting words.

  3. Easy Reader

    Thanks from me, too. Your take on this had just the right twist to clue me in: I wasn’t sharing clever in-jokes, I was getting in the way of my own story. How embarrassing!

    Referenced at my site: //kimshupenia.com/

  4. AMSchultz

    This is one of the better lists I have seen in some time online. It is honest and relevant to today’s market. Very often, advice columns are geared towards writers in a “noble pursuit of the art of writing” format, leaving out the fact that the vast majority of people who put pen-to-paper or fingers-to-keyboard today are hoping to make money off their endeavors.

    Quality piece. I will be sharing this on Twitter and perhaps adding a link at my own site, http://amschultz.com


  5. EJ Clarke

    All of these pieces of advice are awesome…except the last one, I think.

    I would agree that it’s not good to leave your readers hanging for no good reason, but cliffhangers that cut out in the middle of an action scene are sometimes used to great effect by authors that have several strong storylines. Check out A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones): I’d say way more than half the scenes in that entire series cut out during the climax of a scene, only to switch to a different character halfway across the world.

    While I wouldn’t hold up that series as the epitome of perfect writing, I must admit that it had a way of keeping the reader hooked, and turning the page, even if that page was not EXACTLY what the reader wanted at that moment.

  6. Christie Hartman

    “Believe it or not, you don’t want readers to admire your writing: You want them to be so engaged in the story itself that they don’t notice the way you use words to shape it.”

    Well said. These are great tips. As far as symbolism and themes go, it seems to me these are things that arise in good books, but they are not intentional. Trying to get them in there is going to make them irritating.

  7. pacanime

    In the Trying Too Hard “Some authors resort to using a profusion of speaker attributions,” section, I believe the advice is off. Let me explain why. There is a difference between a book that is read to yourself, in you head, and an audio book read by a narrator. In the case of changing the word said to hiss, bark, gasp, etc, you’re giving a cue to the chracter’s emotional state. If you simply used the word said, when the character is upset, the meaning is not conveyed correctly. This, however, may be OK when a book is read in ones head. In the case of a narrator reading your work for an audio, giving them cues as too how to put empahsis on the line is important. If the narrator is saying “said all the time” the listener can easily be distracted by that word. He said, and she said, over and over starts to become tedious when you hear another person reading it. It’s being over used, and the narrator may not convey what the intention of the line was by the character correctly. I wouldn’t give that as advice per se since books can become audio books and if you’re a person who uses that format, the speaking attributions are more important. I’ve also read a book where the go to phrase was “said” most of the time and my impression was that the writer was lazy or the editor was over zealous in cutting out the attributions. It made things more bland in general. My thought was this would not make a good audio book listening expirence. Just thought I should point it out.

  8. Ahmad Taylor

    I think this is a very informative article, but Mr. James, may I ask you about #5: Leaving Readers Hanging. I have been having a hard time with this one is my personal writing.

    I recently published a novel, and have gotten some strong criticisms on both ends of the specturm concerning just that.

    My fans have said that they love the suspense and appreciate not being force-fed every moment of drama in one huge dose.

    My critics have said that they were constantly left guessing about what the outcome of a situation would be, and that the ending of the book left them with several unanswered questions.

    While I can understand having the questions, that was my intention. I intentionally wrote it to leave readers with unanswered questions that would be answered in the sequel. I wanted to leave readers wondering about the characters and their welfare, which I hoped would drive interest for the 2nd novel.

    How do I satisfy readers when I have such a dichotomy in opinion concerning the suspense?

    Also, I wrote a story I would enjoy reading, or watching were it a movie, so I thought most readers of the genre would as well…

    1. Rina75

      Hey, you got your novel published, so you did something right. The fact that you have fans and critics is a good thing. Listen to your fans. They are the ones who will be buying your books. There will always be readers who don’t want to think for themselves and expect the writer to spoon feed the story to them and explain everything right away. Unless you are willing to dumb your story down for them, write for the people who can appreciate it for what it is. However, do make sure that your story flows and don’t change POVs just for effect. Oh, and get cracking on your next novel. Those unanswered questions need answering. LOL

  9. Naomi

    This is an excellent article, loaded with concrete examples. Thank you! Something that annoys me in novels is the use of a red herring for no particular reason, other than to include a red herring. Those written sleight of hand moments that intrigue the reader, but ultimately add nothing to the story. I recently read a novel that continually brought up a particular point during the first half of the story, with the main character continually commenting on its strangeness. Then, a big let down when it’s revealed that the point was meaningless, and therefore unnecessary. Grrr.

  10. agriffith

    Wow! This is loaded with fresh ideas I haven’t seen in books or articles about writing in the last ten years. Thank you for perspective on use of similes and metaphors and their ability to slow down my story or distract my reader. Even if I’ve learned figurative language should be in the right mood, I don’t always think of the appropriateness for the moment in the story. #5 I notice James Patterson is prone to do. It does annoy me. He switches point of view characters and leaves a suspenseful moment for the abandoned character when he does. PD James, one of my favorite mystery writers, frequently uses the withholding of key information, for example, in one novel, a character is reading a poison pen letter and makes a decision about who the author is and some action she will take. Of course the reader wants to know who wrote the letter and what the woman is going to do. This makes the story more interesting. Of course, each rule must be weighed for the reader response. I think you made that clear. Thank you for the wonderful information.

  11. 2mcleods

    In number one, the ‘talked about’ novel is criticized. I presume that ‘talked about’ implies a level of success in this context. This would indicate that the technique used worked for this novel, so why use it as an example? Did I miss something?
    Other than my perception of this opening flaw I found the discussion quite helpful.

  12. HuffmanHanni

    I know this is supposed to be an article regarding general fiction but I can see how #1 could be applied successfully depending on the genre. I think you are writing or reading something epic, using symbolism or a theme could be useful. I wonder, though, if some of the overusage of symbolism or a theme stems from English classes I’d assume many of us have taken where the teachers harps endlessly about “What are some of the symbols in this book?” or “What are some of the major themes? Write an extensive, analytical essay about it” that changes the way we read and thus, the way we write. I know from personal experience, in my English classes in high school, it changed the way I read books and how I felt about writing and writers. I thought they had to be sooo smart to have intentionally worked in those symbols and themes. I’ve only recently realized most of those were probably accidential.

    #2 I can see as a problem in my own writing. I’ve read articles advocating using other words besides ‘said’ so I find myself spending a lot of time searching a thesarus for the right word to use and I honestly lose track of what I really wanted to write. Perhaps that is somethng best left to revisions and just letting the initial draft just write itself.

    #s 3 and 4 make sense.

    #5 Personally, I don’t necessarily mind being left hanging. Again, it depends on the genre. If I know I’m reading a series, then yeah, the end of each book should leave me wanting more. If it’s just straight fiction, then there should be some ending, of course, but I like to sometimes wonder where the story would go from there.

  13. Licking River Mud

    The problem is that stories that are strictly story-driven lack characters. All those offering comments are correct, but probably in getting things right they develop really believable characters. Writer Bobbie Ann Mason says in her writing, first she gets her characters. Look at the really great stories — each is character driven. I recently read a novel that included a number of people doing a number of things and there were some killings and a couple of twists that were more like extraordinary and hard to believe coincidences and the story was dull as (you fill in the comparison), Nevertheless, caution 2 – trying too hard is very worthwhile. Read Toni Morrison’s latest, HOME, to what good writing really is. Morrison’s work is a case study in making writing sound like it fell right out of her laptop. Her lead character, Frank, drives the entire story. If Frank is flat, the story falls. Yes, there must be a story, but first you must get your characters. I use Licking River Mud, but I am Roger Auge II, Covington, KY.

  14. myrtlebeachgirl

    This is fantastic! I’ve been writing a novel series (my first attempt at lengthy writing) for about 7 years, and each and every one of the issues you mentioned have been ones I have had to go back and address. It was relieving to check certain of them off as areas I feel I’ve gotten a grip on, and a reality check to see there are still more things I need to address in my overall story. As for overdoing symbolism and themes, and using textbook literary devices, I find that if they begin to creep into my novel-writing, I can remedy that by writing a poem. I love to do that, as well. It’s a place to freely be flowery and mysterious. Thanks so much for putting together one of the best pieces on tight writing I have ever read!

  15. Doris Swift

    In my opinion, this is one of the best articles out there on writing fiction. I’m especially fond of tip #2, which is probably the one I struggle with most. When I blog, I just write…the words flow out without fear of rejection or critique. When I’m working on a manuscript however, the flow is quite different. Some days it takes me forever to move forward because my thesaurus keeps holding me back! I’m probably being too hard on myself as I rack my brain (yes I know, an overused cliché) trying to be clever. What a relief to hear someone say that overdoing obscure words and synonyms is totally unnecessary. I think at times I write to impress the gatekeeper instead of focusing on what really matters, my readers…

  16. Will Lutwick

    Steven, you’ve really nailed it. So many novels and memoirs are not story-driven and so the authors make these kinds of errors. A problem particularly with many memoirs is that they read like someone’s journal and there is no coherent story. The best source of story structure and how to implement is Robert McKee’s “Story.” It has influenced me and my writing so much. I have tried to use McKee’s advice and avoid the kinds of mistakes you write about in this excellent column in my just-released seriocomic memoir, “Dodging Machetes: How I Survived Forbidden Love, Bad Behavior, and the Peace Corps in Fiji.” And judging by the reviews I am getting from readers, I have succeeded at doing so.

    1. Nonnie3615

      Will, I totally agree with you. A friend told me a while back to get Robert McKee’s book “Story” and I would never need another writing book. He was right. I’ve not seen anyone mention mention this book before. However, Steve has presented an excellent article and I will continue to follow his writing. I did add one more book, Donald Maass’ book “Fire in Fiction.” His macro tension is excellent and I have used it throughout my new novel, “The Liberators.” Jerri Gibson McCloud

  17. RaleighRoxStar

    Excellent article. Love the concrete examples you’ve provided. I have been distracted by such devices when reading a book. However, I will be paying closer attention and looking for places where I am guilty of these same devices in my manuscripts.

  18. connymanero

    Now THIS is good advice and so well put. Not everyone can point out flaws and be entertaining at the same time. I call this, a wonderful read and I’ll remember it.
    How about some advice on how to make time for writing and not come up with 100 excuses not to?
    I think all writers battle with that one. They want to write, but there are so many distractions and insecurities.


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